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Rock engravings

Engraving is a very old technique. Engravings (also called petroglyphs) are made by removing part of a rock surface either by rubbing (abrading) or by hitting (pecking) it with a stone or other object.

The earliest petroglyphs were probably abraded grooves. Abraded designs were produced by repeatedly rubbing a soft rock such as sandstone with a harder stone. Pecked designs were made by striking the rock surface with a pointed stone or shell to form a series of small, round holes.

The pecked designs took a variety of forms - concentric circles, lines, the outlines of animals, people, fish, birds, weapons, reptiles, animal tracks and mythical beings. In certain engravings (sometimes called pecked intaglio) the whole surface of the picture was hollowed out.

Pecked engraving of a lizard, Thomas Reservoir, Northern Territory

Rock engravings are commonly found in the open on natural rock exposures such as large flat rocks or cliff faces. They can be very large, especially in the Sydney sandstone district where there is a whale 13m long and 3.5m wide. Although most engravings are hundreds or thousands of years old, some that show sailing ships were created as recently as the time of European settlement.

Rock paintings

Unlike engravings, the great majority of rock paintings were made in shelters where they are protected from the weather by an overhang. These rock shelters vary in size and shape: from deep caves to rock surfaces protected by only the smallest of ledges. Rock paintings are found all over Australia but the most spectacular cave galleries are in the north of the Northern Territory; in the Laura district of Cape York, Queensland; and in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Here the abundance of rock formations and natural pigments presented Aboriginal people with an almost endless supply of surfaces and colours for their painted images.

The Aboriginal painters used earth colours - reds, browns and yellows, black and white - from natural ingredients. Red was a very important, often sacred, colour and widely used. It came from a variety of ochres and minerals. Certain red ochres were so highly valued that people would travel or trade over hundreds of kilometres to obtain them. Yellows came from several sources such as ochre, the dust of particular ants' nests, minerals, and a certain kind of fungus. Manganese oxide, crushed charcoal or charred bark provided the colour black, and white came from kaolin or pipeclay.

The paint was applied to the rock surface in a variety of ways. For stencilled designs, paint was blown from the mouth. Other pictures were painted using fingers, the palm of the hand, sticks or feathers. Brushes were also made from grasses, chewed twigs, narrow strips of stringybark or palm leaves.

Subjects and styles

Aborigines made pictures of a wide variety of subjects including mythical beings, humans, birds, animals, fish, reptiles and animal tracks as well as more abstract designs. As we have seen, many of these works were connected with religion, ritual and ceremony. The abstract designs often contained 'coded' information - the meaning of the symbols might be known only to those who had gone through special ceremonies.

However, painting and engraving could be a secular as well as a religious activity. Many painted sites, in particular, contain a vivid record of the daily life of the people who created them. The rock walls form a sort of 'pictorial history book' which can include pictures of extinct giant marsupials or the story of contact between Aborigines and other peoples. For example, there are paintings showing the visits of Macassan fishermen and their boats to Australia's northern shores hundreds of years ago. There are also images of European sailing ships, as well as drawings of weapons, tools and animals the white settlers brought with them. In Central Australia guns, axes, cattle and horses are pictured along with ceremonial ornaments, boomerangs, clubs, shields and the more abstract designs of the Western Desert.

Styles of rock painting vary from region to region. Stencils, however, are found almost everywhere. They are mostly of hands ranging in size from baby to adult. These images were made by holding an object, whether a hand or foot or utensil or weapon, against the surface of the rock and spraying liquid pigment from the mouth over and around it so that its clear outline was left on the rock.

Western Arnhem Land is the home of the painting style known as X-ray, a name given to it by Europeans because the pictures show internal features such as the skeleton, heart, lungs and other organs of the creatures represented as well as their external shapes. Many of these paintings are of food animals such as turtles, kangaroos and fish, and are thought to be a form of hunting and fishing magic.

The cave and rock imagery of the desert also has its own distinctive style. The principal motifs are a variety of circles, semicircles, spirals, dots and lines. Totemic ancestors are portrayed in simple lines, tracks and geometric designs. However, contact paintings - usually illustrating animals and objects that are not part of the Aboriginal mythological universe - are generally naturalistic rather than abstract in form.

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